James Holmes

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a German Arms Race

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James Holmes

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a German Arms Race

Halloween or not, The Naval Diplomat is not scared of a German arms race. Quite the opposite in fact.

One advantage of visiting a place only once in a while is that changes appear to happen stepwise. What happens so gradually that residents barely notice smacks you in the face. So it was with Berlin.

Color was my overriding impression when visiting West and East Berlin in 1986. Or, more precisely, a clash of color palettes between the two halves of the city. West Berlin was spic-and-span, shopping districts like the Kurfürstendamm a riot of neon lights. The East? Gray, soot-stained, and drab. Bombed-out buildings lingered forty years after World War II.

No more. New construction has filled in the no-man's land along the Berlin Wall, mostly effacing the Cold War past.

Indeed, only small traces reveal that the city was once divided. A few sections of the Wall are on display in Potsdamer Platz, complete with a huckster decked out in an East German military uniform. He's eager — for a fee — to stamp your passport, just like the bad old days when crossing from West to East Berlin and back. Photos are scattered along the former frontier to remind passersby what the fortifications looked like. And, most wondrous of all, you can now walk through the Brandenburg Gate rather than gawk from a distance at the armed encampment at the heart of a great city.

A legacy like divided Berlin's can't but be ingrained in the national psyche. History shapes culture, and in turn the attitudes and reflexes of individuals. Germany has seen more than its fair share of traumas over the past century, including two world wars, a Cold War, and the rigors of national reunification.

Methinks I heard three distant echoes of past events at last week's conference. One, since we were in Prussia, I thought I'd start off my presentation with a kind word about Clausewitz, a son of Prussia — much as I commended the Marquis de Lafayette in Paris last summer, or Admiral de Ruyter in The Hague when last I sojourned there. Stony faces. Clausewitz was libeled for supposedly encouraging the bloodletting on the Western Front a century ago. It appears he hasn't shaken off that undeserved reputation, which stems from an egregious misreading of On War.

Two, the organizers asked me to analyze chokepoints in South Asia, so I turned to Mahan. After all, Mahan developed robust standards for gauging the worth of geographic features. Judging from the comments, though, he too seems to be in disfavor among German scholars, along with the other greats of geopolitics. Mahan, Mackinder, and other classical geopolitical thinkers were tainted by association with the likes of Friedrich Ratzel, who distorted their fairly anodyne ideas about geography and strategy into the doctrine of Lebensraum. That doctrine helped send the Third Reich hurtling along its path to European conquest and genocide.

Small wonder then that Germans recoil from such thinkers. Misshapen by the Ratzels of the world, geopolitical writings once helped inspire twisted ideologies.

And three, the last conference session veered toward the bizarre. An official reputedly in the know about Chancellor Merkel's foreign policy proclaimed, rather forcefully, that Berlin refuses to engage in an arms race. This elicited laughter — including, I fear, from myself. Why laughter? Because few with even passing acquaintance with postwar Germany can imagine the nation fielding more than minimal defenses, let alone going on the march.

Chancellor Willy Brandt once fell to his knees in remorse for the Nazi regime's misdeeds. Brandt — not the Kaiser, or still less Hitler — is the rightful metaphor for Germany's quasi-pacifist foreign policy. German ambitions are not something to fret about.

And in any event, an arms race with whom? China? At a time when German allies such as the United States are struggling to preserve current force levels, let alone expand their naval and air arms? It's been almost a century since Germany was a Pacific sea power. The vision of the Federal German Navy steaming boldly into East Asian waters to face down the PLA Navy provokes giggles. Quit it!

In all likelihood a cultural memory of the Anglo-German naval arms race that helped set World War I in motion prompted this odd-seeming policy pronouncement. Fear not, Germans. No one worries about your launching into an arms race. Just the opposite. We 'Mercans would be grateful if you would race … to 2 percent of GDP, the NATO standard for peacetime defense spending. Germany, like most NATO members, falls well short of that bare-bones standard.

The shortfall is worth correcting. America could use German help defending the international order.